The Whole World is Watching

It’s been a busy week in for communications professionals who work with brands online. Most notably, we’ve seen young people at the helm of the #NEVERAGAIN movement who are impacting the reputations of brands and organizations through social media. Their efforts are a direct effect of their surviving the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Where 17 people lost their lives.

The way it has been done is a testament to the effectiveness of the Agenda Setting Theory. Although this group of survivors is still in high school, their work has been a textbook case of public agenda setting. In this aspect of the theory, members of the public raise awareness of an issue and bring it to the forefront for others.

In one week’s time, a group of grief-stricken teenagers’ has primed the discussion in the media and policy makers. It’s prompted one network to sponsor a prime time town hall and state legislators in Florida to reverse course from long-held beliefs.

For those who like to explore brands and marketing, this week has given us much about which to think. And that’s exactly the point of the Agenda Setting Theory: it doesn’t tell us what to think, but rather, what to think about.

At one point in my career, I worked for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where I could see exhibits from history were brands were disrupted. In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we look at how activists can affect a brand’s reputation in their quest for change and to be heard.

Modern: Last Week Online

For those adept in social media it was easy to see conversations happen in real-time that affected brands. On Feb. 22, reality TV star Kylie Jenner tweeted her impressions of a redesign to the social media platform Snapchat. She didn’t mince words either:

That message was no only heard by her 25 million followers, but also the stock market. By the end of the day, Snapchat had lost about six percent of its value, or about $1.3 billion dollars.

Then, two days later a survivor of last week’s mass shooting started a ripple effect with this tweet.

Students, who in their grief one week prior, pledged to place a “badge of shame” for those not actively working to prevent tragedies such as the one that happened in their school. Their online activism spurred others to call out companies working with the National Riffle Association through corporate deals.

By Saturday night, more than 20 companies ended their relationships with the association. It doesn’t appear that the students’ momentum is slowing down either.

Direct Action Campaigns

The young people could probably find examples of activists affecting brands in their textbooks. This, too, happened during the Civil Rights Movement. It seems fitting that this post should pay homage to those foot soldiers fought for equality in the context of human rights during Black History Month.

Direct action campaigns were a mainstay during the Civil Rights Era where participants would call attention to injustice through non-violence demonstrations, protests, sit-ins and strikes. Those the journey to gain civil rights was not immediate, the efforts worked.

The arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For 381 days, black residents stayed off the city’s transit lines to protest the segregation of Montgomery buses. The story of how the boycott impacted the city’s coffers was prominently featured in the traveling Smithsonian exhibit titled 381 Days. This exhibit visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute during my tenure there.

The historic Sixteenth Baptist Church was just outside my office window when I worked at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The basement of the church was the place where four little girls died as the result of a racially motivated bombing in September 1963. But months before the bombing, civil rights leaders developed the idea for the Children’s Crusade, a non-violent protest by children.

The children’s non-violence was met with police officers, police dogs and water hours. Biography.com Author Kim Gilmore noted the effects to the brand of the City of Birmingham (Ala.): the whole world was watching.

Footage and photographs of the violent crackdown in Birmingham circulated throughout the nation and the world, causing an outcry. Businesses in downtown Birmingham were feeling the pressure. 

­Final Thoughts

Coordinated efforts for action can affect brands and business. This approach is not only effective, but time-tested. History is replete with examples of brands being motivated to change based on public outcry and reaction; they would be wise to take note.

Organizations put a lot of money into their brands—everything from research and development to production to advertising. While a key influencer starts to speak out against a brand and encourages others to do the same, brands notice.

As with Jenner, her followers began quickly replying how they disliked the Snapchat changes as well. From there it only snowballed. There is now a change.org online petition with more than one million signature asking Snapchat to abandon its redesign of the app.

The same thing goes for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students. Their clarion call to their followers prompted them to begin contacting organizations en masse to threaten to or cancel their own personal associations with the big names. When the complaints start to add up, so can the dollar signs.

In other words, money talks.

Paying attention to the conversation about an organization’s brand is the first step. It is important for communications professionals to monitor the conversation happening online about the organization. This environmental scanning can serve as a leading edge to discovering an issue on the horizon. These days, that’s part of the cost of doing business.

However, no one is going to give an organization credit for merely monitoring the brand online. What people do remember is the response the brand offers. Change isn’t easy, nor does it come overnight for activists. Their strength in affecting change is their persistence and ability to remain an influencer on topics of significance to their efforts.

Crowdsourcing: The Cup is Half Full

In 2011, the word “crowdsourcing” was added to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as a mashup of the words “crowd” and “outsourcing.” In five short years, it became a way to define a new way of doing business:

“the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers” – Merriam Webster

Even though the etymology of the word hasn’t been around that long, the idea, itself, has.

In fact, just this past week I employed crowdsourcing for a project on which I was working. I had hit a speed bump in my planning and the ideas had stalled. We sent out an email asking for a solution to a group of key stakeholders and literally, within 45 seconds, I had the answer to something that had stumped me for days.

In this week’s Modern Retro PR, examine the ways in which soliciting others for help in solving complex ideas has happened in two different eras.

Modern: #WhiteCupContest

Sometimes a when it comes to a new project a blank piece of paper can leave your mind empty and overwhelmed. But that’s exactly the opposite what Starbucks saw. The company’s baristas noticed customers doodling on the company’s white paper cups designed with only a Starbucks logo. The revolution of a blank canvas sparked a unique opportunity for crowdsourcing a design for the iconic cup. Thus, the White Cup Challenge was born in 2014!

According to Starbucks:

The company-sponsored design competition encouraged customers in the U.S. and Canada to decorate a Starbucks® reusable cup with their original customized art and submit a photo through social media using the hashtag #WhiteCupContest.

According to the company, the promotion brought in nearly 4,000 submissions in less than a month’s time, with the winner’s artwork being reproduced on a limited edition reusable Starbucks’ cup.

The blog Marketing Eye explained the impact of the Starbucks crowdsourcing campaign by calling it “a winning combination of crowd-sourced product design, increasing reusable cup sales and reinforcing a Starbucks’ environmental responsibility credentials.”

The affinity for the crowdsourced designs shared via Twitter has even prompted the company to expand the platform on which the artwork is seen to Pinterest. The Starbucks Cup Art Pinterest board is yet another way for the company to thank its customers for being part of the company’s success. This particular Pinterest board is being followed by more than 250,000 other Pinterest accounts.

Shortly after launching this campaign, the Seattle-based company expanded the crowdsourcing to its annual red cup holiday designs. Patrons were offered a red cup on which to draw their hearts out. Similar to the #WhiteCupContest, the #RedCupContest features holiday-themed art.

According to the company’s Facebook page, in 2015 Starbucks received more than 24,000 artwork submissions in five days!

The popularity of the competition further enhanced the brand and created customer loyalty. Additionally, the company developed a permanent, digital home for the holiday artwork at www.redcupcollection.com.

The beauty of this campaign wasn’t that Starbucks was asking customers to come up with new ideas, but it was that they provided a platform to showcase how people spent their time as they enjoyed a cup of their favorite brew.

Retro: Crimestoppers

It was more than 40 years ago when an Albuquerque, New Mexico police detective came up with an idea to help solve a backlog of crime mysteries. The idea was simple: solicit the public for information about the unsolved crime to which the police may not have had access. If successful, the hope was that the information provided would help police crack the case and ultimately lead to an arrest and conviction.

The incentive to the anonymous tipster would be a cash reward. According to Crime Stoppers:

Members of the local community, media and law enforcement, came together in partnership to begin the effort to provide crime-solving assistance to law enforcement, and the first Crime Stoppers program was born on September 8, 1976.

In 1976, the word “crowdsourcing” simply didn’t exist, but it is evident that the philosophy did based on the work Crime Stoppers was doing to address issues of crime in local communities. While this collaborative partnership with the media, police and the community began with a telephone tip line, the organization now takes anonymous tips through the internet, too—a reflection of the modernization of an organization to evolve with changing times and technologies.

Crime Stoppers presently operates around the globe and has a 95% conviction rate on cases where tips are submitted, according to the organization’s website. There, viewers can also find an up-to-date tracking log of the success of the program. So far, more than 700,000 arrests have been made.

Do you have a tip to share? Call Crime Stoppers USA at 1 (800) 222-TIPS.

Final Thoughts

For strategic communicators looking for permission to use crowdsourcing, it already exists in one plank under the typical 12 functions of public relations’ competencies: trusted counsel. It is here where a communicator can use information gathered from stakeholders to provide trusted counsel to an organization’s leader. Done correctly and effectively, the information gleaned can offer the communicator primary informal research to use for consideration.

But it takes courage and a sense of humility to employ this strategy to address a challenging opportunity. Leaders must be willing to recognize that they nor their team has all the answers and that the collective “we” may offer insight we have yet to consider. Additionally, crowdsourcing can help leaders avoid groupthink by having others outside the organization’s inner workings to think of solutions to the problem.

“Crowdsourcing prevents groupthink and stops leaders from buying in to their own ideas without thinking through other perspectives.” – Chris Cancialosi, Forbes Contributor

This is a huge shift in the thinking that the experts know it all.

If, as organizational leaders, we are trying to solve challenging issues in order to meet the needs of a key public, then why not include them in the process? Writer Carrie Dagenhard of Tektonika.com argues we should as part of a brand loyalty strategy: “By leveraging crowdsourcing and the technologies that make it possible, digital brands can amass and retain user allegiance.”

Simply put: an optimist communicator would view the cup as half full and crowdsourcing as a way to fill it to the brim.

Citizen Journalists: Authors of the First Rough Draft of History?

As public relations’ practitioners, we must be prepared not only present information on behalf of an organization to our stakeholders, but also for them to reply with their side of the story. Increasingly, practitioners are seeing stakeholders challenge the narrative through the publication of blogs and microblogging (e.g. Twitter). It is important to consider how these technologies impact the work of professional communicators.

The role of the citizen journalist has an important place in society, and professional practitioners would be wise to recognize this. Citizen journalism can often be the leading edge of sparking a conversation about important topics to raise awareness and possibly, bring about change.

However, the ease with which anyone can start a blog, it can be difficult to determine what is noise and what is not.

According to Statistica.com, there are nearly 392 million blogs which have been published, including this one! In reviewing the data on blog, that number only increases year after year. But unfortunately, for the reader not all of them have quality and/or relevant content. However, for those writers for whom have something important to say, in the ability for a single person to speak out from darkness to shine a light on key issues, there is power.

In this week’s post, we review the impact of the published writings of everyday people and how they can lead to greater awareness.

Modern: A Diary by “Gul Makai,” a BBC Blog

In 2009, a 14-year-old girl began blogging for the BBC after she and other girls were banned from schools because of their gender. She blogged under the name of Gul Makai, a pen name. For Malala Yousafzai, the blog became an outlet to the world to speak out on the Taliban limiting of a generation of girls achieving their full potential.

Her series of blog posts share in vivid detail what life was like for at the time in Swat, Pakistan. The isolation from an education she loved and her fear for an uncertain future.

“I am upset because the schools are still closed here in Swat. Our school was supposed to open today. On waking up I realised the school was still closed and that was very upsetting.” – Malala Yousafzai

Yousafzai, an international education advocate, became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17, and has since started a foundation to continue her work.

Read more of Yousafzai’s blog posts.

Retro: Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

I was in ninth grade when I read Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl. I know this because I remember being about the same age as her when she wrote in captivating detail about her life as a Jewish person hiding inside the Secret Annex during 1940s’ Amsterdam. From behind a rotating bookshelf, Frank detailed what life was like for her and seven others living in silence. Her diary was the one place she could use the full power of her voice to tell the story of how Nazi occupation affected her life. Wise beyond her years, she had much to say.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” –Anne Frank

This young woman wrote of love, hope, maturing and more through of one history’s darkest moments. She shone a light on making the world a better place, even if it is in your own little corner of the world.

Frank’s dream of becoming a book author was realized when her father published her diary in 1947, which has since been translated into more than 70 languages worldwide.

Learn more about Frank’s life.

Final Thoughts

Blogs seem to be the great equalizer—giving everyone a voice. However, the role of the citizen journalist done effectively can be a chronicler in real time of events on the ground. Oftentimes, these citizen journalists provide a perspective that a traditionally-trained journalist just can’t match: the raw emotion of a story told in first person by the one living it. The ability to share from the human condition in a raw emotion is served best by being uncensored.

Frank described it like this in her diary: “Because paper has more patience than people.”

The writings of both Yousafzai and Frank highlighted what life was like during the occupation of their respective communities. Amid the isolation of the situation, both looked to moments of normality as a sign of better days to come. Tragically, for Frank, that day never came, but her words are immortal.

Both journalists and citizen journalists have the ability and the responsibility for shaping the narrative on a given topic for generations to come. It is from these accounts that historians can add layers of color to the geo-political issues affecting the world around us.

Many journalists give former Washington Post President and Publisher Philip L. Graham credit for being the first to describe journalism as “the first rough draft of history.” – Jack Shafer, Slate.com

Certainly, this is the role Yousafzai and Frank played in telling their own story.

In the March 2014 edition of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, the article, Citizen Journalism: Valuable, Useless or Dangerous, points to citizen journalism as being a double-edged sword. For the awareness that citizen journalists can bring to a topic, the information presented may not be told from an objective point of view:

Citizen journalists have provided real-time descriptions of events and subcultures seldom if ever covered adequately by traditional media. However, the absence of journalistic background, editing, and quality control have often led to biased, inaccurate, low-quality pieces.

Something that can lead to more confusion for the reader is something that may lead them there in the first place: good design. According to Julia McCoy of Expresswriters.com, a highly-polished blog equates to credibility to the reader who may assume the blog has more credibility than it should.  This is may contribute to the reason people have trouble discerning fact from fake when information is presented in a blog format as compared to its more traditional news media sources.

All the more reason for professional communicators to understand this as they are preparing a strategic response.

The Purpose Behind Your Practice

For professional communicators, the challenge remains: how best can we communicate with our stakeholders? As a practitioner, I consider myself to have a strong knowledge base of incorporating social media into practice. In my office, I have a vintage Underwood typewriter and a vintage camera as reminders that if practitioners before me had less sophisticated tools and were able to produce quality content, what’s my excuse?

These two items are not mere decoration; they are a challenge to me to up my game each day.

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Items in my office

The journey to locate these two items wasn’t easy, and that’s what makes the story itself worthwhile. I told a coworker that I was seeking a vintage typewriter to decorate in my new office a few years back. She and a friend went to an outdoor flea market, where the vendor had a typewriter for sale. She asked the price, thinking she’d would buy it and I would pay her back. He told her (because she was an Alabama Crimson fan) sporting her gear): the cost would be $50. Incensed, her Auburn Tigers’ fan friend (sporting her gear), asked the price and he replied $25.

The friend of a friend bought it and gave it to me.

THIS is why I say on this blog good storytelling is always in style. It helps us feel connected. In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we example the purpose behind your practice.

Modern: Facebook’s Changing Algorithm

Lately, every PR-type or blogger has been offering his or her hot take on how communications professionals can be successful in light of Facebook’s change in algorithm. This won’t be another one of those blogs offering advice, but embedded in the science of the change is the best practice of the profession.

As social creatures, we value interaction. Social media offer that, in albeit a superficial way. To address that, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a January 11, 2018 post:

 “(W)e’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content — posts from businesses, brands and media — is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”

For organizations, this new direction should help practitioners refocus their work in providing content that is meaningful to the stakeholder and motivating to share. It can be done.

Understanding this, my team and I determined that a strong story would be helpful in communicating a particular message the strength of the schools in our community. In developing our communications strategy, we helped our coworkers understand their role as brand ambassadors among their friend and family circles who would value their opinion. That compelling content was shared repeatedly with colleagues, parents, and others in our community—catapulting it to high engagement numbers.

See for yourself:

CHS data.png

Numbers like these outperform our typical posts ten-fold!

According to Pew Research, more than 60 percent of Millennials gets their (political) news from Facebook, as compared to more traditional news sources, like television. This is a crucial tidbit for school systems, as the parents of our students are increasingly in the Millennial generation.

People want to feel connectivity. Social media can provide that avenue. Plus, it makes good business sense to help stakeholders understand your organization’s purpose!

Retro: The Page Principles

The origins of this work in the age of social media can be found in the work and speeches of the godfather of corporate communications and former AT&T executive Arthur Page. Although Page did not author the principles bearing his name, it is based off his life’s work and was adopted by the Arthur Page Society:

  1. Tell the truth.
    2. Prove it with action.
    3. Listen to stakeholders.
    4. Manage for tomorrow.
    5. Conduct public relations as if the whole enterprise depends on it.
    6. Realize an enterprise’s true character is expressed by its people.
    7. Remain calm, patient and good-humored.

Regardless, of the medium used with which to communicate, this is solid advice!

For the purposes of this post, let’s dig into principle six a bit more.

The strongest opinions — good or bad — about an enterprise are shaped by the words and deeds of an increasingly diverse workforce. As a result, every employee — active or retired — is involved with public relations. It is the responsibility of corporate communications to advocate for respect, diversity and inclusion in the workforce and to support each employee’s capability and desire to be an honest, knowledgeable ambassador to customers, friends, shareowners and public officials. –Arthur Page Society

In short, the responsibility of public relations doesn’t just belong to the PR pro—it belongs to each employee of an organization. Further, the organization must demonstrate a solid measure of respect for its employees by recognizing their right to know and be part of a strategic communications’ effort.

Final Thoughts

Leaders of today know and embrace this fact, by using social media. Savvy leaders ensure that it is being done. It is likely highly Facebook employees were aware of the changes in the algorithm, but what Zuckerberg did in his public post was to widen the circle to share directly with Facebook users.

Page was ahead of his time. His work recognized that the strongest asset of any organization is its people. This underscores why it is important for communications’ practitioners to incorporate this in to the strategy section of an effective plan.

Evidence of this can be found in surveys on workplace culture, too. Tolero Solutions, a human resources outfit, found that nearly half of people “say lack of trust in leadership is the biggest issue impacting their work performance”. This is easy to remedy! In fact, the answer to this workplace challenge is the same that will help brands be successful in the age of the new Facebook algorithm: share the content!

Zuckerberg’s bet is the change to the social network will bring people closer together and help them feel more connected to the stories in their lives. It also seems that same practice can offer a communicator a blueprint for business.

[NOTE: Should you want to watch video we posted to social media, view it here as to not artificially inflate the video’s analytical data on Facebook.]